Normality in the West Bank

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You have reached an Electronic Intifada slide show. The Electronic Intifada (EI), found at, publishes news, commentary, analysis, and reference materials about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict from a Palestinian perspective.

A familiar scenario takes place in front of me. A little boy, no more than four years old, is laughing as he runs back and forth between the line of adults’ feet, feet twice the size of his. Typically, with a combination of innocence and courage only found in children’s eyes, he is testing how far he can go before his mother will call him back. The reason why this ordinary scene remains in my consciousness is that it is took place at Huwwara military checkpoint, one of the manned posts restricting the movement of people and goods in and out of the West Bank town of Nablus. Although the boy is laughing, making some of us waiting in the line smile, he is also about to be checked by young armed soldiers before he is let out on the other side where dozens of yellow taxis are waiting to take people traveling from Nablus to Huwwara, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Qalandia, and the elsewhere in the West Bank.

Unsettling combinations of familiarity and unfamiliarity seem to manifest themselves in every aspect of life here in the West Bank. Recalling the first time I passed through Huwwara checkpoint, I remember that my physical and psychological reaction revealed fear. As I and two colleagues moved slowly forward in the line of other women, children and elderly, the unbalanced and disturbing power relationship between us in the line and the soldiers was mercilessly perceptible. The young men and women, dressed in olive green uniforms, wearing helmets and carrying weapons, have the authority to deny anyone to pass. The people who live here in the West Bank have green permit cards that are checked by the soldiers.

I remember that my heartbeat increased and I felt that I had done something wrong that was about to be exposed. One minute I felt cold, the next warm. I felt like shouting to the soldiers, “Can’t you see what you are doing here?” but instead took some deep breaths while trying not to look at the people around me. I pretended that I could not feel the little boy squeezed between me and the elderly lady next to me. I smiled at the grimace my colleague made as she struggled not to be pushed off-balance by the woman. This was just a normal day. We were just going for a weekend trip to Ramallah, a trip which should take only about 40 minutes if there were no checkpoints. The sun was shining, everyone seemed to know what to do. I remember thinking, “what am I afraid of?” Now as I go though checkpoints, the initial fear I felt the first time has been transformed into a sense of injustice and frustration.

When I ask students who have to pass through checkpoints everyday to get to their university if they feel afraid, most of them will answer that no, they are usually not afraid. Going through the procedures of waiting in line with hundreds of other people in order to be let through to the other side, only a few meters away, has become normal, a necessary routine for many. They have had to go through it so many times. But not being afraid does not mean that you do not feel humiliated, angry, sad and tired. It does not keep you from feeling the biting cold wind or protect you from shivering in your coat. Neither does it make you feel any better as you hand over your shekels to the taxi driver, knowing how little money most families have to spare these days.

As someone who came here hoping to bring clarity to the hazy and media-influenced image I had of the life and people in Palestine, the contrasts visible everywhere still continue to astonish me even after four months. No matter how trivial and shallow some of the traces of the military occupation might seem at first, their marks are everywhere, forcing themselves onto the landscape and people’s lives, hinting to the many layers and the depths of the effects of the occupation.

It is the feeling of sunshine on one’s face and Arabic music on the radio as one waits in line and looks at the long line of cars held up at Za’atara checkpoint on the road from Huwwara to Ramallah. It is in the guitar music played by students at the university, as my friend who is an ambulance driver told me about the night before when he had been covered in blood while carrying a young man who had been killed in the Balata refugee camp. It is in the eyes of the teacher at a school in Huwwara who tells us how he has to protect his students by confronting the Israeli forces who invade the school, interrupting the education of over 500 students, several times a month. It is the beautiful view, spring blossoms from the almond trees and rolling hills, marred by a settlement, illegal under international law, perched strategically on a hill top. It is the taxi-driver who tells you how difficult it is to support his three girls at university. It is the children who lie awake as soldiers invade Nablus every night and the parents who worry about their children going to and from school. It is the mixed feeling of despair and surprise when one finds oneslef on the bus driving next to the imposing West Bank barrier in East Jerusalem, cutting off Jerusalem from the population in the rest of the West Bank. It is the hundreds of men one will find at Gilo checkpoint between Bethlehem from Jerusalem, from 4am in the morning, running and jumping the queue as they are desperate to get to their work in Israel on time. It is one’s friend telling one how their father was arrested last week, another friend explaining her brother’s imprisonment, it is one’s student who apologizes for not being able to come to class because he was held in prison for a month. It is the hairdresser in Ramallah who says he used to love going to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv every night before they built the separation wall.

It is the constant reminder that every aspect of people’s lives here is affected by the occupation. My Palestinian friends who have lived their whole lives in this context tell me that one of the worst things of existing under such conditions is that after a while it becomes normal. One comes to expect everything. One has to endure everything. One has to remain hopeful that life will become easier one day. But when I ask how they understand the situation, they tell me that it is just getting worse; although they want to remain hopeful for future improvements, reality has shown them too many times that hope can be deceiving. Imagine yourself living in conditions of constant oppression, discrimination and insecurity I tell my friends back home, and I know they cannot. I cannot even imagine it myself. My little red passport, always kept in my pocket, feels somehow like a protective shield.

Maria Urkedal York is from Norway and currently lives in Nablus where she works with the Right to Education Campaign at An-Najah University.